Category Archives: Visits

Sheffield Assay Office — Thurs 5th March 2020

I should ima­gine that 90 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Sheffield have heard of the Assay Office, and are vaguely aware of its role in hall­mark­ing items of pre­cious metal, but few fully appre­ci­ate its sig­ni­fic­ance on the national and world stage.

Sheffield Assay Office has been making its mark since 1773 when local sil­ver­smiths, des­pite oppos­i­tion from the Goldsmiths’ Company of London, suc­cess­fully peti­tioned Parliament for the right to assay silver in the city, and whilst it is not the oldest of the four sim­ilar estab­lish­ments still in exist­ence – the others are in London, Edinburgh and Birmingham – it is today the biggest and most influ­en­tial.

Interestingly, des­pite that early oppos­i­tion from the Goldsmiths’ Company, there are many London-based busi­nesses who choose to send their pre­cious goods to Sheffield to be assayed, and some of those cli­ents have global repu­ta­tions to uphold.

© Sheffield Assay Office

A party of 28 mem­bers and guests from Stumperlowe Probus Club enjoyed a two and a half hour visit to the Assay Office, where we were priv­ileged to be given an intro­duct­ory talk, fol­lowed by a tour of the ultra-modern premises, by Emma Paragreen, the cur­ator, lib­rar­ian and arch­iv­ist.

Emma is a lead­ing figure in the world of pre­cious metals and jew­ellery. Apart from her Assay Office work, she is a com­mit­tee member of the Silver Society and editor of their news­let­ter, and a member of the Society of Jewellery Historians and, in the last three years, has com­pleted her Professional Jewellers’ Diploma through the National Association of Jewellers. She also recently became a Freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company.

Michael Portillo fans will have heard of Bradshaw’s, the famous ref­er­ence book of rail­way timetables. The sim­il­arly named equi­val­ent for pre­cious metals (the dif­fer­ence being that this one is still going strong), is the snap­pily titled Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks: A Guide to Marks of Origin on English, Scottish and Irish Silver, Gold, Platinum, Palladium and on Foreign Imported Silver and Gold Plate 1544 to 2020. Daniel Bradbury was the first Sheffield Assay Master; the book is pub­lished by the Sheffield Assay Office, and Emma is the editor.

Emma Paragreen — © Sheffield Assay Office

In short, we couldn’t have wished for a more know­ledge­able person to bring us up to speed on the work of the Assay Office, whose senior staff were and still are known as the Guardians of the Standard of Wrought Plate in the Town of Sheffield. Even in 1773, Sheffield had an estab­lished tra­di­tion of fine sil­ver­ware pro­duc­tion, but the number of guard­i­ans who were also sil­ver­smiths was restric­ted in number to ten to ensure that the Assay Office offered an inde­pend­ent and impar­tial ser­vice, for the bene­fit of the cus­tomer rather than the man­u­fac­turer.

The hall­mark, then, is the oldest form of con­sumer pro­tec­tion that exists, and the cur­rent Assay Office premises on Beulah Road at Hillsborough are known as Guardians’ Hall. But des­pite having almost 250 years of his­tory behind it, the office is a hi-tech sci­entific estab­lish­ment where hall­marks are just as likely to be applied (depend­ing on the item being assayed) by laser tech­no­logy as by the tra­di­tional hardened-steel dyes.

The tra­di­tional busi­ness of hall­mark­ing con­tin­ues to provide cus­tom­ers both nation­ally and world­wide with an assur­ance of qual­ity and purity. The instantly recog­nis­able Sheffield mark of the Yorkshire rose is care­fully applied to items of pre­cious metal which can range from the most del­ic­ate chain to a stun­ning one-off table centrepiece cre­ated by a con­tem­por­ary designer. Whatever the item, who­ever the cus­tomer, the inde­pend­ence and strin­gent stand­ards of The Sheffield Assay Office ensure accur­acy and inspire con­fid­ence.

© Sheffield Assay Office
© Sheffield Assay Office

The ori­ginal aim of the intro­duc­tion of hall­mark­ing was to pro­tect the public against fraud and the trader against unfair com­pet­i­tion. That prin­ciple is as import­ant in Sheffield in 2020 as it was when the first UK legis­la­tion relat­ing to hall­mark­ing was intro­duced in 1238.


You can find fur­ther read­ing on the his­tory and work of the Sheffield Assay Office on their own web­site:



Amazon Fulfilment Centre visit — Wed 30th Oct 2019

In the days when Doncaster Rovers’ home ground was Belle Vue, the town was proud of the fact that it had the largest play­ing area of any club in the Football League, at 110 yards long by 72 yards wide.

But, in a town where size obvi­ously mat­ters, the old Rovers’ pitch would be dwarfed by the nearby Amazon Fulfilment Centre — a ware­house or dis­tri­bu­tion centre to you and me – which covers an area equi­val­ent to no fewer than 14 Premier League foot­ball pitches on the iPort Commercial Park just off the M18.

In round fig­ures that comes out at one mil­lion square feet, and no one among our party of 27 Stumperlowe Probus Club mem­bers who vis­ited the Amazon Fulfilment Centre today would deny that the first thing that hits you as you drive into the vis­it­ors’ car park, and even more so as you enter on foot through the main doors of the build­ing, is the sheer size of the place.

In Amazon par­lance, the iPort ware­house is LBA2. All Amazon ful­fil­ment centres are code named after their nearest inter­na­tional air­port, and when LBA1 was opened in 2010, closer to Doncaster and on the oppos­ite side of the M18, Doncaster Sheffield Airport was hand­ling only a frac­tion of the freight it does today. So Leeds Bradford it was.

Amazon began life only 25 years ago as an online seller of books but has grown to become the largest inter­net com­pany by rev­enue in the world. As of 2018 it employed almost 650,000 people world­wide, of whom more than 250,000 work full-time in their so-called ful­fil­ment net­work.

In the early Amazon days, the ware­house and its office in Seattle were one and the same. A hand­ful of employ­ees shared the work­space along with shelves and shelves of books. Over time, one ware­house became sev­eral hun­dred and the goods passing through came to include elec­tron­ics, soft­ware, video games, cloth­ing, fur­niture, food, toys and jew­ellery. By 2015, Amazon had sur­passed Walmart as the most valu­able retailer in the United States by market cap­it­al­isa­tion.

During our two-hour visit, there were 170 employ­ees – or ‘asso­ci­ates’ as they are known – on duty within the Doncaster build­ing, and every one of them, if not driv­ing some kind of high-reach fork­lift or other vehicle, was busy pick­ing, pack­ing, wrap­ping and send­ing on their way the hun­dreds of thou­sands of par­cels which make their way through the centre every day.

For although every move is heav­ily reli­ant on com­puters and bar­codes to main­tain some semb­lance of order, making sure that the right pack­age is on the right con­veyor belt at the right time, the human ele­ment was also very much in evid­ence. People who had come expect­ing to see banks of robots being con­trolled by per­haps one or two oper­at­ives in a con­trol centre might have been sur­prised.

They’re keen on acronyms at Amazon. My favour­ite in the whole pro­cess was SLAM, which stands for scan/label/apply mani­fest and is a stretch of con­veyor belt, or rather rollers of the type you see in air­port secur­ity, where the bar­coded pack­ages pass through a series of scan­ners. They then have self-adhesive name and address labels lit­er­ally blown on to the sur­face of the card­board by air pres­sure, rather than phys­ic­ally being stamped on, which could damage the con­tents, as the pack­age is routed to the cor­rect out­bound truck. From there it is trans­por­ted to a ‘sort­a­tion’ centre (another Americanism, but at least they spelt ‘centre’ cor­rectly) from where it would wing its way to a cus­tomer.

Our tour slot was too early to have lunch before­hand and too late to have lunch after­wards. So for 21 of our mem­bers the day star­ted with a late full English break­fast and mugs of tea or coffee at The Stockyard truck stop on the Hellaby Industrial Estate, just off Junction 1 of the M18. This was greatly enjoyed, but a sug­ges­tion that The Stockyard could be a pos­sible venue for our annual lunch­eon might be voted down by our wives.

The Hawley Tool Collection — Wed 3rd July 2019

After Nick Duggan’s talk on his own cut­lery col­lec­tion two days earlier, the ‘made in Sheffield’ theme con­tin­ued when 22 Stumperlowe Probus Club mem­bers gathered as arranged at the iconic Bessemer Converter out­side Kelham Island Museum ready to start our guided tour of the Hawley Tool Collection.

The man who star­ted it all, the late Ken Hawley MBE (1927–2014).

As Nick, the cur­ator, poin­ted out, the Hawley Collection might be one of Sheffield’s best kept secrets but it is an inter­na­tion­ally import­ant record of tool making, cut­lery man­u­fac­ture and sil­ver­smith­ing during the city’s indus­trial heyday, com­ple­men­ted by mater­ial from other parts of Britain and the world.

Keith Crawshaw, chair­man of the trust­ees, brings us up to speed on the work of the char­ity.

The col­lec­tion houses a stag­ger­ing 100,000 items, of which 40,000 are on dis­play at any one time. The col­lec­tion is housed in what was ori­gin­ally the Wheatman and Smith saw works, so it is appro­pri­ate that the Saw Shop, situ­ated slightly away from the main tool col­lec­tion, con­tains no fewer than 2,000 examples of what, 250 years ago, was lit­er­ally cut­ting edge tech­no­logy.

We learnt the origin of the words top dog and under­dog. When planks were sawn by hand, with two men using a two-handed saw, the senior man took the top handle while the junior was con­signed to the sawdust-strewn pit below. The irons that were used to hold the wood securely were called dogs.

At one time there were 200 firms in Sheffield man­u­fac­tur­ing saws. The city’s cut­lery her­it­age is rep­res­en­ted just as impress­ively by a col­lec­tion which con­tains 800 dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­tur­ers’ stamps on knife blades, from table­ware to pen­knives.

Tim Marsh admires a fine dis­play of Footprint tools, a Sheffield brand known around the world.

The col­lec­tion does not just con­tain tools, it con­tains the tools which were used to make the tools; it is unique in com­bin­ing fin­ished arte­facts and ‘work in pro­gress’ to illus­trate how things were made, as well as pub­lished cata­logues, archive mater­ial, pic­tures, pho­to­graphs, tapes and films.

For over 50 years the late Ken Hawley – he died in 2014 at the age of 87 – had col­lec­ted what became the basis of the col­lec­tion, and during his work­ing life, which included 30 years selling tools in his own shop, he acquired an unri­valled know­ledge of Sheffield’s indus­trial her­it­age.

John Hopkins and Richard Walker get the low­down on the massive saw col­lec­tion from volun­teer guide Paul Kipling.

The build­ing at Kelham Island hous­ing the Hawley Gallery and stor­age areas was cre­ated in the last unused build­ing on the Kelham Island Museum site fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The £595,000 HLF grant, awar­ded in 2008, was used to refur­bish the build­ing to create dis­plays, stor­age and research facil­it­ies, and the Gallery opened its doors two years later.

Dave Powlson, Barrie O’Brien and Ian Darley admire the Sheffield Year Knife, made in 1822 from 1,822 blades by Sheffield cut­lers Joseph Rodgers & Sons Ltd. As well as knife blades, it ncludes scis­sors, cork­screws, nail files, hack­saw blades and button hooks. Further blades were added to bring the number up to 2,000 by the time of the Millennium, and some of the more recent blades were engraved to mark spe­cial events such as the 1966 World Cup and the Queen’s Silber Jubilee in 1977.

Ken saw the col­lec­tion as a trib­ute to the crafts­man­ship, skills and excel­lence dis­played over the cen­tur­ies by Sheffield firms and work­people, and it was his wish that the col­lec­tion should stay in the city to provide the people of Sheffield as well as vis­it­ors with a per­man­ent, last­ing record.

After being wel­comed by Nick Duggan, we were given an over­view of the Kelham Island site by volun­teer guide Paul Kipling before being taken into the research area where Keith Crawshaw, chair­man of the trust­ees, spoke to us about Ken Hawley the man, and his vision which led to the cre­ation of the museum.

This back saw, made by Thomas Harrison of Sheffield in 1760, is the oldest in the col­lec­tion.
Saws of every shape and type were on dis­play.
Most of our mem­bers had already seen this mag­ni­fi­cent saw, which fea­tured in Simon Barley’s talk to us entitled “The Princess and the Saw” in March 2019.
If you’re squeam­ish, look away now.
If it was made in Sheffield, it’ll be in here some­where.
A fine dis­play of Marples tools for the 1949 British Industries Fair.
Not everything can be on dis­play at the same time, and the stor­e­rooms behind the scenes are an Aladdin’s cave.


Wentworth Woodhouse — Wed 20th March 2019

Most of our mem­bers had read Catherine Bailey’s fas­cin­at­ing book Black Diamonds, the Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, which maps the his­tory of coal mining in South Yorkshire and the down­fall of the Fitzwilliam family.

So it was with great anti­cip­a­tion that we gathered at Wentworth Woodhouse — formerly Britain’s largest private res­id­ence, with a 606-foot front­age — for a guided tour by the excel­lent volun­teers of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust.

It was our first out­side visit of the year and one of the most pop­u­lar ever, with a party of 52 mem­bers and their part­ners arriv­ing in glor­i­ous sun­shine on the spring equi­nox for what turned out to be a 90-minute tour of just some of the more import­ant formal rooms in two sep­ar­ate groups.

The Georgian mas­ter­piece of Wentworth Woodhouse, largely hidden from public view on the edge of the vil­lage of Wentworth, boasts an east front wider than that of Buckingham Palace and in its heyday provided employ­ment for 1,000 local people main­tain­ing its reputed 365 rooms and sur­round­ing estate.

A member of staff work­ing on the res­tor­a­tion of a statue.

The Grade I listed coun­try house was bought for the rel­at­ively knock­down price of £7 mil­lion by the Trust, which aims to restore it to its former glory at a cost of up to £200 mil­lion, with assist­ance from the National Trust who are cur­rently paying the wages of the full-time staff. Scaffolding alone, which shrouded much of the famous façade on the day of our visit, is cost­ing £1 mil­lion.

Ongoing work on the East Front, as seen from the inside.

The house has 250,000 square feet of floor space and covers an area of more than two and a half acres, sur­roun­ded by 180 acres of park­land and an estate of 15,000 acres.

The ori­ginal Jacobean house was rebuilt by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the first Marquess of Rockingham (1693–1750), and vastly expan­ded by his son, the second mar­quess, who was twice Prime Minister. In the 18th cen­tury, the house was inher­ited by the Earls Fitzwilliam who owned it until 1979 when it passed to the heirs of the eighth and tenth earls, its value having being boos­ted by the vast quant­it­ies of coal dis­covered on the estate.

However, this turned out to be a double edged sword. Following nation­al­isa­tion of the coal industry on New Year’s Day 1947, Manny Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power in the Labour gov­ern­ment, ordered that the formal park­land in front of the house be sac­ri­ficed to open­cast coal mining, and the work­ings exten­ded right up to the front door of the house. Controversially, Shinwell insisted that the coal be obtained ‘at all costs’ in the interest of Britain’s post­war indus­trial drive, des­pite the pres­id­ent of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association claim­ing that it amoun­ted to van­dal­ism.

A con­tem­por­ary news­pa­per pho­to­graph show­ing what the pres­id­ent of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association described as the ‘van­dal­ism’ of the lawn in front of the house.

Although the grand east front of the house is the best known and the most illus­trated, it was the west front fin­ished in 1734 which was inten­ded to be for the family’s private enjoy­ment rather than the impress­ive east front which demon­strated their social and polit­ical ambi­tions.

Wentworth Woodhouse actu­ally com­prises two joined houses. The west front, with the gar­dens facing north west towards the vil­lage, was built of brick with stone detail. The grander east front is said to have been built as a result of rivalry between two branches of the family. The Stainborough branch of the Wentworth family inher­ited the Earl of Strafford’s minor title of Baron Raby but not his estates, which went to Thomas Watson (who added Wentworth to his sur­name). The Stainborough Wentworths, for whom the Strafford earl­dom was revived, lived at nearby Wentworth Castle.







We roun­ded off our morn­ing visit with lunch at either the Rockingham Arms or George & Dragon pubs in Wentworth vil­lage.


Drax Power Station — Wed 5th Sept 2018

On a good day, the 12 cool­ing towers and 851-foot main chim­ney of Drax Power Station are a famil­iar site on the hori­zon from the uplands to the west of Sheffield, 35 miles away as the crow flies.

But 28 mem­bers and guests of Stumperlowe Probus Club were afforded a much closer look at Britain’s largest power gen­er­at­ing facil­ity with a three-hour visit during which we learnt much about Drax’s trans­ition from a coal-powered sta­tion, when it was the UK’s largest emit­ter of carbon diox­ide, to a much greener future which could even­tu­ally see it pro­du­cing ‘carbon neg­at­ive’ elec­tri­city, taking more carbon diox­ide from the atmo­sphere than it pro­duces.

In 2003, Drax took its first steps away from fossil fuel, which had defined elec­tri­city gen­er­a­tion for more than a cen­tury, and began the trans­fer to bio­mass fuel as a renew­able altern­at­ive to coal.

Fifteen years later, three of the station’s six gen­er­at­ing units now run entirely on com­pressed wood pel­lets, mostly impor­ted from respons­ibly man­aged work­ing forests in the United States and Canada, while coal has been releg­ated to a sup­port­ing role to cover spikes in demand and main­tain the sta­bil­ity of the system.

Now Drax has con­ver­ted a fourth unit from coal to bio­mass, which rep­res­ents the passing of a two thirds marker for the power station’s coal-free ambi­tions and rep­res­ents more than 600 mega­watts of renew­able elec­tri­city going into Britain’s national trans­mis­sion system. It is the largest decar­bon­isa­tion pro­ject in Europe. Drax sup­plies six per cent of the country’s elec­tri­city and 11 per cent of its renew­able power.

As well as being an import­ant stra­tegic asset nation­ally, Drax is also vital to the local eco­nomy, employ­ing more than 700 people at the plant and sup­port­ing 3,650 jobs through­out Yorkshire and the Humber. The eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tion to the region stood at £419.2 mil­lion in 2016.

Drax dis­tri­bu­tion ter­min­als are loc­ated at four ports on the east and west coasts of north­ern England – Hull, Newcastle, Immingham and Liverpool — rout­ing fuel from ships for onward deliv­ery into the heart of the sta­tion by rail. A 12,500-ton ship­load of wood pel­lets will keep Drax’s tur­bines oper­at­ing for two and a half days.

Each of the station’s six tur­bines actu­ally con­sist of five sep­ar­ate tur­bines, namely one high pres­sure (HP), one inter­me­di­ate pres­sure (IP) and three low pres­sure (LP). To pro­duce steam, Drax has six boil­ers each weigh­ing 4,000 tonnes. They con­vert energy from bio­mass or coal into steam at the rate of more than four mil­lions pounds in weight per hour inside 300 miles of steel tubing.

The steam tem­per­at­ure of raised to 568 deg C and the pres­sure to 166 bar. The boil­ers oper­ate either con­tinu­ously or on a daily cycle of morn­ing start-up and night shut­down as required by demand, known as ‘two-shifting.’ Exhaust steam from the 140-megawatt high pres­sure tur­bine is returned to the boiler for reheat­ing before being used in the 250mw inter­me­di­ate pres­sure tur­bine at 565 deg C and 40.2 bar. It then passes to the three 90mw low pres­sure tur­bines at 308 deg C and 6.32 bar.

The steam strikes and lifts a series of angled blades moun­ted on the tur­bine shaft, making it rotate at 3,000 rpm (50 cycles a second). The steam then passes to two con­dens­ers and is taken to the 12 cool­ing towers, two for each of the six gen­er­at­ing units.

To gen­er­ate the elec­tri­city, an elec­tro­mag­net on the rotor spins inside a stator (the sta­tion­ary sec­tion) of copper wind­ings, gen­er­at­ing 19,000 amps at 23,500 volts. A trans­former increases the voltage to a mind bog­gling 400,000 volts before send­ing it via cables to the adja­cent National Grid sub-station for dis­tri­bu­tion into our homes, offices and factor­ies.

After an intro­duc­tion in the ‘learn­ing centre’ where our party was split into three groups and the work­ings of the power gen­er­at­ing pro­cess were explained with sev­eral scale models, we were kitted out in in hi-vis jack­ets, plastic hel­mets and pro­tect­ive eye­wear for an out­door tour of the vast site in elec­tric bug­gies. Inside the build­ings, with the 1,400-foot tur­bine hall as the centrepiece, we were given head­phones to allow us to hear the inform­at­ive com­ment­ary by our guides in the very noisy sur­round­ings.

Our heads were buzz­ing not only with noise but a slight over­load of facts and fig­ures as we peeled off our pro­tect­ive layers and climbed back into the com­fort of our coach for the jour­ney home to Sheffield via a lunch­time stop at the Brewer’s Arms in Snaith to round off a most enjoy­able day.























Carr Head Farm Vineyard visit — Wed 18th July 2018

Several mem­bers of Stumperlowe Probus Club have more than a passing interest in wine, includ­ing at least two who are share­hold­ers in a commercial-size French vine­yard, but they learnt much about the trials and tribu­la­tions of smal­ler scale pro­duc­tion on a Peak District hill­side 950 feet above sea level.

A party of 26 club mem­bers enjoyed lunch at a local hostelry before pro­gress­ing to the farm on the out­skirts of Hathersage for a tour of the vines fol­lowed by a tast­ing and buying oppor­tun­ity.

Michael Bailey, the pro­pri­etor of Carr Head Farm with his wife Mary, planted the first of his 1,700 vines on a one and a half acre, south west facing slope in 2014, so the ven­ture is still in its early stages. It was largely a retire­ment pro­ject; it is very labour intens­ive and he admits that a vine­yard of that size will never become a highly prof­it­able busi­ness.

Members listen intently as Michael talks us through some of the tech­niques of grape pro­duc­tion

Michael was an engin­eer by pro­fes­sion, and his career change began when he took a course at Plumpton College, the UK’s centre of excel­lence for wine which, as well as teach­ing the skills of viniculture, has its own vine­yards in East Sussex stretch­ing to 25 acres pro­du­cing 40,000 bottles of award-winning still and spark­ling wines each year.


After the recent heat­wave, it has the mak­ings of an excel­lent har­vest, although the grapes still have some way to go before being picked towards the end of September

When we star­ted the course, the tutor went round the class and asked us all where we wanted to start grow­ing grapes,” Michael recalled. “There were people from the places you might expect – South East England, Cornwall, and up into the Midlands, and when I said North Derbyshire at an alti­tude of almost 1,000 feet, his reply was to the effect of ‘well, good luck to you!’”



Michael explains the use of a refracto­meter which will meas­ure the spe­cific grav­ity of the grapes and thus the alco­hol con­tent of the fin­ished wine

The sev­eral vari­et­ies of grapes pro­duced each year go to make the white, spark­ling rosé and still rosé offered by Carr Head, although there is no winery on site at Hathersage and the grapes are sent away to be pro­duced by the Halfpenny Green vine­yard at Bobbington, Staffordshire.